Category Archives: Movie Review

MOVIE REVIEW: “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (1964)

[THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE IN 2010]

Merry Christmas.

I have a strange affinity for this movie. When I was a kid, periodically, our teachers would herd us all into the cafeteria twice a year while we waited for our parents to come and pick us up rather than have us ride the buses like normal. They’d have us watch one of two movies – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and a more-or-less-forgotten Disney film called “Melody Time.” (1948) I never quite figured out why they did this, but I suspect it was so that we’d be out from underfoot while our parents were Christmas shopping or whatever, since it always happened on the last day of school before Christmas break. I never really figured out why they had us watch the Disney flick, it must have been tied to something, but I don’t know what, or why. Oh, and now that I think on it, they used to show us the old “Ichabod Crane” Disney cartoon before Halloween. For whatever reason, I must have seen this movie three or four times in as many years.

I didn’t remember too much about it – the only bit I remembered in any detail was the kids mistaking a robot on the horizon for Santa’s workship, and some little green martian kids having no clue what Christmas or presents were. I always looked forward to it. I liked the movie. I was an addlepated kid, evidently. Years later, in high school and college, when the subject of truly horrible films came up, no one could ever believe that I’d seen this film, much less that I’d seen it multiple times, and kinda’ liked it.

PLAY BY PLAY

Right off the bat, we’re treated/tortured with a hopelessly happy-awful song. If you’re a guy like me who doesn’t really like Christmas, and if the cloying faux sentimentality of Old Saint Nick mostly just makes you want to punch someone, you’re gonna’ find this all a little much to bear:

What I find particularly hateful about this is the way these New Yawk children keep calling Santa “Santy” (Which rhymes with women’s underwear.) I don’t know why that sets me off, but it does. It’s cootish, like the way you’d expect people to say his name back when people still called policemen “Bulls” and Teddy Roosevelt was contemplating a third term.

A couple Martian children on Mars are watching a news broadcast from earth about Santa, featuring a man interviewing Santa (Who’s real) at the North pole, in his workshop staffed by three midgets. (There woulda’ been more, I guess, but the Fairlyland Creatures Union Local #207 decided to strike. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) On Mars, the children are acting weirdly (for Martians), so Kemar calls a meeting of the Martian Council, and they meet up in the spooky valley to get advice from the 800-year-old wizard of overacting, who chews the scenery for a bit in this odd sequence:

Sorry for the MST3k bit, it was the only clip I could find. The Martian council decide ‘hey, screw all our governmental duties, let’s head to earth and kidnap a mythical being!’ This they then do. Now, the Martians have cloaking device technology, but they just don’t bother to turn it on until Earth (Read: The United States) has already noticed them. Then they turn it on, but nothing happens. A quick inspection of the “Radar Box” shows that the malfunction was caused by Dropo, Kemar’s idiot butler, who stowed away inside a piece of equipment. We’re given a couple minutes of stock footage of the US Armed Forces scrambling as if for nuclear attack to check out the UFO. Then the Cloak kicks in, and Dr. Werner von Green (heavy sigh) says it was probably just a meteor or something.

Cut to: two blandly cute kids on earth, one of whom is Pia Zadora. The other one isn’t Pia Zadora, and that’s really all he’s got going for him. The Martians kidnap them, and Voldar – who has a fake mustache – attempts to be mean to them, but Kemar is an enlightened despot who forbids such things. The two of them go off to do Martian things, while Dropo takes the kids on a tour of the control room. The bosses are coming back, so he stashes the kids in the Radar Box, and leaves. The Martians discuss their nefarious plan to kidnap Santa. Once the ship lands at The North Pole (Magnetic or Geographic? This is just one of the many thorny theological quandaries this film refuses to tackle), the kids disable the Cloaking Device, escape the ship and run away. Kemar and Krew head off to bag Santa, while Voldar heads off to kill the kids, or maybe just beat them up real bad, which always cheers him up when he’s sitting around being depressed by how unconvincing his mustache is. (I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) The kids are hidden in a cave, but before Voldar can kill them or give them a stern talking to, or whatever it is he has planned, a man in a polar bear costume shows up and scares him away. (Just for clarity’s sake, he’s not *supposed* to be a man in a polar bear suit. I think he’s supposed to be a real polar bear, but I have a sharper eye than most, and I spotted it. Those of you less experienced that I may have a harder time with this.)

The kids go looking for Santa’s worship and we come to the one scene in this movie that I remember clearly in which Pia Zadora says she sees the windows all lit up in the distance. These turn out to be the glowing eyes of a hokey robot that grabs the kids while they stand around like idiots, rather than running away because the set is too small for them to run anyway. Voldar tells the robot to kill them or hug them to death or something, but Kemar has the robot programmed to only obey him, so no dice.

From there, the plot lumbers over to Santa’s Worship, where the Robot is supposed to grab the old fat dude (who also has a fake mustache, *and* a fake beard), but immediately shuts down and becomes a toy when in his presence. Kemar and Voldar bust in and grab the guy, and in the process we learn that Mrs. Claus (Who’s actually named “Mary Christmas” – she’s a liberated chick who kept her maiden name, y’see. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) is a bit of a harpie, evidently.

So on to the ship everyone goes, and – zang – off to Mars. Of course the Cloak isn’t working, so we see stock footage of the armed forces going to kick the Martian’s green butts yet again, and then a quick interview with Werner von Green (Who also has a fake mustache) telling how they’re launching astronauts to rescue Santa and the two kids. How they’ve figured out Santa and two kids are gone is really anyone’s guess, the authorities just seem to instantly know this kind of thing, which implies a kind of Orwellian police state, but obviously that can’t be what they were going for because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film. We see a lot of stock footage of a rocket launching, and one of the Martians says they’re being followed, but of course nothing comes of this.

Meanwhile, Voldar attempts to off Santa and the kids in the airlock, but if a fat tub of geriatric guts like Santa can fit through a chimney, he sure as shooting can fit through an air vent. It’s kinda’ like that X-files episode with the guy who can throw his entire body out of joint to crawl through tiny spaces, and then he eats people. Remember that? Not that that happens in this film because that would be interesting, and as you may have already recognized, there’s a bit of a thematic motif in this film which prevents anything interesting from happening.

So on Mars, Kemar takes Santa and the kids to meet his kids, and a whole lot of fake laughter ensues. No one talks, mind you, they just laugh for something like three minutes, because nothing pads out a film like pointless mirth. Really there’s a whole heck of a lot of pointless fake laughter in this film.

[PLEASE NOTE: The original clip I linked to is no longer on YouTube. Sorry]

The particular scene in question takes place at about 1:12 in the clip. It’s disquieting. Seriously, just listen to that montage – maybe play it on a loop – and it’s impossible to imagine yourself walking around inside your house doing anything apart from sinking knives in the walls for no good reason. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Punk movement was rebelling against, and, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing the hippie movement secretly wanted more of, then got all pissy and self-indulgent when they realized they couldn’t have it, so they just took drugs and had lots of sex and caught crabs instead. I assume. It’s hard to really understand what filthy hippies want.

Soooooooooooooooooooo anyway, as best I can figure, they decide to have a Martian Christmas, and they set up an automated toy factory staffed by child labor, rather than midgets because Mars evidently has fairly lax laws on the subject. Voldar, meanwhile, for no adequately explained reason, is hiding in a fake looking cave outside of town. Evidently he’s an outcast, on the run, turned out by polite society, though I’m not sure why. I presume it had something to do with him trying to murder three people – one of them mythical, the other one Pia Zadora, who might also be mythical – but I really don’t know. The copy I was watching was kind of sketchy and had clearly been re-spliced a couple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scene missing. Or maybe I just nodded off there for a minute. That wouldn’t surprise me much, either.

So Voldar decides they can’t just kill Santa (For no explained reason), instead they sneak into the toy factory and sabotage it. While there, Dropo walks in dressed like Santa because Dropo is an idiot. Voldar’s an idiot too, and doesn’t realize it’s not Santa, despite the fact that he’s green and has the same kind of stupid helmet everyone else on Mars wears.

Santa discovers the machine has been sabotaged, meanwhile Voldar tells Kemar that Santa (It’s actually Dropo, don’t be frightened kids. Whereas everyone loves Santa, pretty much everyone wants to see Dropo get hurt.) is a hostage, and will be released if Kemar accedes to his demands. Voldar’s demands, that is, not Santa’s. Or Dropo’s. Of course Kemar’s the closest thing to a non-idiot on Mars, and he just beats the crap out of the two of them, shoves ’em in a closet, and begins to interrogate them. The bad guy get the drop on him, however, and beat the crap out of him, and escape the closet…but can they escape the hall it’s attached to? Seriously, they just stand around for like ten minutes in a six-by-six set, it’s claustrophobic *AND* visually uninteresting.

Back in the fake cave of fakeness, Dropo acts out of character and figures a way to escape, and makes his way back to the city or…house…or…really wherever it is that the “Action” is taking place. Voldar attacks the kids, but they hold him off using toys, after which Kemar comes to and arrests the guy. He’s crying, and his fake mustache is all soggy and even faker-looking.

Santa decides that Dropo would make a good Martian Santa, and then heads back to Earth with Pia Zadora and the kid who isn’t Pia Zadora.

Cue closing credits, annnnnnnd the end. What? Oh? Still running a bit short? Ok…uhm…run the lyrics to the song after the credits, as if it’s a singalong…………annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite all my snark, this is a perfectly tolerable kids movie. The SF trappings are probably intended as mild parody of the crappy SF TV shows of the 50s, and frankly things aren’t terribly much faker than episodes of “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” I mean, how else are we to make sense of the clearly-joking “Food Pills” stuff? Yeah, it’s a belabored running gag that isn’t remotely funny, but clearly it’s *supposed* to be funny, clearly they’re making fun of the tired old food-pill trope that had been showing up in literary SF for a generation, and in film SF for a decade or so. (For instance, it figures prominently in “Conquest of Space.”

Production values are worlds higher than “Forbidden Zone,” which is the yardstick I use for these things, and bear in mind that this is a film that’s intended for really young kids. I *loved* this movie in first and second grade, and probably third as well. All my little friends loved it, too, and I don’t remember anyone talking trash about it back in the day. It’s perfectly acceptable for kids in the same way that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Romper Room are entirely acceptable for kids. They see and experience things differently than we do, so it’s kind of disingenuous to complain about the movie because it doesn’t have gore and knife fights and gory knife fights and a heavy metal soundtrack and whatnot because obviously those things aren’t age appropriate.

Unlike most of the people who run SF fansites, I have no real pretension. I’m an idiot, and I admit that freely. Rather than try to hide my mistakes, I draw attention to them, fess up, and move on. Case in point: I wrote this whole review assuming the little blonde girl was Pia Zadora. In fact, she’s not. She’s Donna Confortini, who never did anything in film apart form this movie. Pa Zadora is “Girmar,” the little Martian girl. Wow! What a huge mistake to make! Now, a lesser man than me would go through the review and fix that, trying to cover his tracks, but not me: I’m just honest and lazy enough to leave it the way I wrote it. Pia would have been about 10 when this movie was made. Despite being a bit old for that sort of thing by then, Pia would go on to have a minor career playing a sex kitten in movies that were essentially cheap sexed-up uncredited remakes of other movies: “Butterfly” (1982) was a slutty version of “Lolita” (1961), and “The Lonely Lady” (1983) was an even more slutty version of “The Oscar” (1966).

From an adult perspective, Dropo is the absolute worst kind of character in a film – a guy who’s not even remotely funny, but whom we’re *told* is a scream. We’re subjected to a lot of pointless mugging of the camera. He’s really so bad that I feel kind of embarrassed for him, I kind of don’t want to give his real name or talk about his career. He seems kind of vulnerable. “Voldar” was played by character actor Vincent Beck, who was on a jillion shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Apart from that, really no one in this movie ever went on to do anything of note.

It’s interesting to me that during the course of the movie, no one ever mentions how all those poor kids back on earth will be shafted because Santa’s trapped on Mars. Also, did the Astronauts get back to Earth? Did they land on Mars nine months later, guns a-blazing and kill everyone they met? What happened next? I think there’s a fine concept for a sequel there that no one ever really explored.

The Martians are, frankly, embarrassing. Guys in green tights and makeup. They all wear motorcycle helmets with the goggles turned upside down so the nose part is pointing up, all spray painted green, with some flexi-pipe on one side, and some TV Rabbit Ears attached. It’s sad, really.

The brief shots of the spaceship in flight are actually kinda’ cool. I found myself wondering if they’d been stolen from some other film.

Ok, I’m tired of typing. Suffice it to say that this is a really, really, really bad film that is bad in the exactly specific kind of way that makes you kind of sad for everyone in the film, you know? They just wanted to make something nice for the kids, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, but the movie is so cheap, so shoddy, so poorly acted, so badly thought out that it’s hard to overlook that.

It’s like when you’re ten and your mom tries to make you a cake for your birthday, only she can’t cook, and ends up with this amorphous disaster, swathed in way too much icing to hide the deformities: Yeah, it’s terrible, but you can’t actually complain to her, can you? I mean, she tried, right? And she already knows she failed – I mean, you saw her crying quietly to herself in the kitchen, right? Would it be any better if you pointed out to her what a bad job she did? No, obviously not. She’s got a hard life, getting harder all the time, and let’s face it, you’re no picnic, kiddo. So you just sit there, pretending the burned, rock-hard flinders drowned in icing are tasty, and that you don’t notice how bad it is, and she just sits there, knowing you know, and feeling bad that you’re having to put the effort into hiding your feelings, which makes her feel worse, and of course you feel bad because (A) you didn’t get a good cake and (B) you don’t even get to feel bad about it because your mom is obviously in a bad way and (C )your every effort to make your mom feel better makes her feel worse in that spooky grownup way that no 10-year-old understands, and (D) the damn bowling game you got is making you upset because everyone at the party is better at it than you, thus everything everyone does makes the both of you feel worse, and you hurt for everyone at pretty much every turn.

This *WHOLE* movie is like that.

I want to hate it, but these people are so inept, so clearly out of their depth that you kind of feel bad for them. I mean, most of them never went on to do anything, and one of them grew up to be Pia Zadora, which is obviously punishment enough. The whole thing just makes me sad on so many different levels. There’s my empathy for the people who made this thing, there’s my nostalgia for the kid I once was, who was so vastly different from the adult I now am that he actually enjoyed this film, and there’s my sadness that I can no longer enjoy it.

As I said at the outset, I’m not a Christmasy kind of guy. I don’t like it. Too much stress, too many out of pocket expenses, too much cloying tripe. It’s been decades since I felt anything other than dread at Christmas, certainly any sense of the sacred was long ago washed out of it by Madison avenue and my own childhood greed. There’s nothing I look forward to about it, I’m just numb.

On that level, this movie is a success, in that normally I feel nothing, but this film makes me sad in a very Christmas kind of way.

This film is in public domain, which means you can legally watch it free online in several locations.

MST3K did it, and I’m told Starship Titanic did a version of it, too. If you’d like another view on this one, which is different from my own, yet strangely similar, check out this one here

And that’s about it. Merry Christmas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Pass that bottle, would ya? Thanks. Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a slice of lime around here?

MOVIE REVIEW: “Silent Running” (1972)

It is the future! The year 2008! In this far distant tomorrow which took place nine years ago, the earth has been completely defoliated. Such nature as remains has been relegated to some habitats on six huge American Airlines space freighters, orbiting Saturn. It’s an amazingly expensive, horribly boring undertaking, so fortunately all of that takes place offscreen before the movie begins. The bad news? Joan Baez sings.

Once that unpleasantness is out of the way (Seriously: why did anyone anywhere ever like Joan?) we find ourselves on the Valley Forge, one of the freighters in the fleet. These ships are operating on a sub-skeleton crew of just four people, rotated through in six-month shifts. Twitchy self-righteous hippie Bruce Dern has done sixteen straight hitches! He’s an environmentalist, you see, and he’s taken it upon himself to preserve the last forests. The crew – blue collar types – ride him kind of hard because of his eccentricities, but one of them actually kind of stands up for him a little bit. Dern doesn’t really seem to notice this kindness much.

The word comes through from earth: the program has been cancelled. The crews are to eject the domes, blow ‘em up with thermos-sized nukes (“Termos-nuclear weapons?” Huh? Huh?), and return their ships to commercial service. This they then do. There’s lots of shots of cute, happy little bunnies that are about to be atomized intercut with them setting up the bombs and cutting the domes loose. It’s hardly subtle.

Bruce wigs out and kills the guy who was nice to him with a shovel, then he launches and nukes another of the domes with the remaining crew members aboard. He has the neat little robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie, no, really!) chuck a bunch of supplies out one of the airlocks, and sends of a fake panicky message to the rest of the fleet, babbling about an explosion and the rest of the crew is dead, and blah blah blah. He fires the engines, and the Valley Forge moves through the umbra of Saturn.

The other ships aren’t close enough to rescue him – of course they don’t realize he doesn’t want to be rescued – and they point out that his course will take him through the rings, whereupon his ship will probably be destroyed.

Anderson: “These ships weren’t meant to shoot the rapids. There’s no way to reach you before that happens. Your name is Lowell, is it?”

Dern: “Yes.”

Anderson: “Lowell, you might want to think about…”

Dern: “Taking my own life?”

Anderson: “Yes.”

Dern: “Oh, no sir, I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that.”

Anderson: [long pause] “You’re a very brave American, Lowell.”

Dern: “Thank you, sir. [turns off radio] I think I am.”

Having gotten messed up in the fight to kill the only guy on the crew who was nice to him, Dern reprograms the “Drones” to perform surgery on him. It’s a mildly freaky scene. Afterwards they hit the rings, and one of the drones is lost to space.

From this point in, the movie is pretty dull. Fairly clever in places, but pretty dull just the same. We get a lot of scenes of Dern teaching the surviving drones to take care of the plants in the one remaining dome, playing cards with them (They cheat), and trying to interact with them on a friendly level, though this is clearly shown to be a dead end: they simply aren’t human, though they appear to be mostly sapient.

Dern struggles with flashbacks and guilt during all this, and has the drones bury the body of the guy he killed with the shovel – he can’t bear to do it himself. He attempts to say a prayer/give a eulogy for the guy before they throw him in the hole (Dern can’t bear to say “put him in the hole” either), but he makes a totally ineffectual hash of this as well, and kind of breaks down. It’s a fairly raw scene, and genuinely kind of moving. It’s one of two truly “Bruce Dern” scenes in the film, if you know what I mean.

Eventually he hits one of the remaining drones with a dune buggy while tear-assing around the cargo bay (It’s a BIG ship!) and cripples it. There’s a kind of neat, kind of touching scene of him trying to repair it – again, ineffectually – while the other drone looks on.

The forest starts to die, and Lowell can’t figure it out, though it’s obviously because they’re so far away from the sun that the plants can’t photosynthesize (Stupid hippie!). One of the other ships from the cargo fleet contacts him and tells him they’re a rescue party. Lowell’s been on his own for months at this point, maybe a year. The absolute best-acted scene in the movie is when the rescue ship attempts to contact him on the radio, and he literally can not comprehend what’s going on. This is the other truly “Bruce Dern” scene.

He realizes that he’s screwed – though of course he never really had a plan anyway, he’s just been reacting all along – but he (Finally) figures out the light thing, and sets the dome up with a bunch of billion-watt bulbs, and has the remaining unscathed drone take care of it in perpetuity. Speaking to the crippled drone, he says “When I was a kid I put my name and address in a bottle and threw it into the sea. I never knew if anyone found it.“ He ejects the dome, and as it rockets away from the freighter, Dern blows up the Valley Forge with some leftover nukes.

The final scene is the dome floating through space, tended by the lone remaining drone, while Joan Baez sings.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

This one didn’t really hold up as well in reality as it did in my memories. I was fascinated by this movie long before I actually saw it, mainly for the radical spaceship design and the cool clunky, functional look of the technology on it, as seen in stills in various magazines and books. When I finally watched it, I was a bit disappointed. The message was fairly obvious, but on the bright side the morality is somewhat more ambiguous than you’d get if this film were made today. Interestingly so, really.

For starters, Lowell is a mess. He kills three guys in cold blood – one of whom they make a point of showing us was married, and had a kid – hijacks a ship, and runs away into the night. He feels really badly about this, of course, but pushes that aside mostly and considers himself to be an American hero. He’s very out of touch with reality. He’s been on these ships for eight years, and when word comes in that there’s some big news coming up, he’s convinced they’re going to bring the forests back to earth, even when everyone else knows full well it’s going to be budget cuts. He won’t listen. He’s monomaniacal. He’s not all that bright. He can reprogram a droid and pilot a freighter, but he can’t figure out that plants need light to live.

I can not stress that enough: He’s an environmentalist who can’t figure out that plants need light to live!

He has more of an emotional relationship with three robots – which the movie shows us again and again is a dead end – than he did with the humans on the crew. He has all this advanced technology and robot slave labor, and he can’t think of anything to do with it apart from teach the drones how to play cards.

Most tellingly, he rails on early in the movie about how awful earth is now that nature is gone: Everywhere you go on earth, it’s 75 degrees. There’s no more poverty, everyone has a job, no one goes hungry anymore. He says these things as though they’re bad. I’ll grant the thin description we get sounds a bit like living in a shopping mall, but, hey, I’m a geek: that’s kind of a dream of mine anyway. That or a World’s Fair. (Preferably the 1967 World’s Fair. That’d be sweet!) My point being that while the utter destruction of nature is clearly a bad thing, the whole ‘full employment/no poverty/no hunger’ thing sounds pretty good. Curiously, he never makes any scientific arguments – presumably because he doesn’t know any – and bases his whole righteously indignant argument on emotionalism and nostalgia.

I think this is deliberate. I think we’re supposed to identify with Lowell, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to like him all that much. I mean, they hired Bruce Dern to play him, a guy who was primarily known for playing twitchy psychopaths up to that point. (Arguably he does that again here.) I think the script is deliberately addressing the human cost of the story: four people and two drones ultimately die, and Lowell is a pretty sad excuse for a hero. At no point does he ever have a clue about what he’ll do next. In fact, rather than rallying on earth trying to gain support for re-forestation, which might have accomplished something, he’s been hiding out in space for nearly a decade, dreaming his dreamy little dreams…the more you look at the movie, the more of a wreck you realize the guy is.

Bruce Dern plays this well. He’s effectively onscreen alone for 45 minutes, and while some scenes (Such as playing cards with the crew, or playing cards with the Drones) are stagey and ring false, the scenes of him retreating into himself, and daydreaming of living on a verdant earth that must never have existed in his lifetime are very well done. There are face actors like, say, Tom Hanks or Patrick Stewart, where you can kind of see what’s going on inside their heads. With Lowell, it’s clear that there really isn’t much going on behind his face, and what there is he’s trying to suppress.

It’s an interesting choice. Today they’d make it all jingoistic and “Oooh-Rah! Nature! Yeah!” It’s kind of ballsy to have a protagonist who’s clearly a bad man doing a good thing in a very bad way.

The visuals aren’t as good as I remembered, though this film provides a very obvious ‘missing link’ in the evolution of special effects. 2001 (Douglas Trumble)–> Silent Running (Trumble, John Dykstra) –> Star Wars (Dykstra). You can see very strong elements of those two other films in this one. If these ships look familiar, it’s because stock footage of them turned up in Battlestar Galactica (1978) as the “Agro Ships” that provided all the Rag Tag Fleet’s food. The design is beautifully ugly, no Star Trek sleekness here.

There are six ships, by the way: The Yellowstone, the Arcadia, the Blue Ridge, the Mohave, the Berkshire, and the Valley Forge. The Berkshire is clearly the flagship of the fleet.

In the beginning of the film, we hear a voice over by the American President delivering an address, “In this first year of a new century” explaining sending the forests off into space. We’re later told the program’s been running eight years, which makes it 2008 or early 2009. It’s never stated, but it’s pretty obvious that the program is being cancelled as a consequence of a presidential election back home. This is a very American movie. Everyone in the film is a yank. There’s not even any token internationalism (I find that oddly refreshing). It’s implied – but again, unstated – that the other nations of earth didn’t even attempt to save anything when they deforested.

Logically, not much of this makes sense: Why ship the forests off to Saturn? Why not just plunk ‘em in Earth Orbit, or, failing that, somewhere closer to the sun? Why do they need the freighters anyway? The domes have their own life support and gravity, and they evidently can operate indefinitely on their own, so why not just cut ‘em loose? (Though to be fair, Lowell thinks this is a solution, but he’s hardly the most sane knife in the fountain) Why was the whole world deforested? Dialog implies a massive environmental re-engineering project that was clearly successful, but they say there’s not so much as a blade of grass left on earth, and I think we’re supposed to take that literally. Why? Presumably this is overpopulation nonsense, but then there’s a lot of muddy thinking in the ecolologicalism of this movie.

There’s some interesting implications in the movie that they never develop: these freighters are HUGE, and there’s six of ‘em, probably more in commercial service elsewhere. How big of a space industry to you need to justify ships this large, and this many of ‘em? There must have been MASSIVE offworld colonies!

Is 2008 too early for this movie? In hindsight, yeah, but at the time, Apollo was still going on, and people took space colonization to be a fait acompli. I mean, look at the massive space stations and lunar cities of 2001 (1968)!

The ship scenes were filmed on a World War II Essex-Class aircraft carrier that had been decommissioned, and was waiting for a trip to the breakers. Just a month after filming ended, the ship no longer existed. That said, we don’t really see much of it – five or six rooms, one hallway, the hangar deck. They give a sense of massive size, but they don’t utilize it much. They had this giant ship at their disposal, but they didn’t have enough budget to really utilize it, I presume.

In the original script, the ship wasn’t called the “Valley Forge.” When the Navy gave ‘em permission to film on the carrier – the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) they decided to rename it in the script.

I once read an interview in Starlog with Douglas Trumble who talked about the original script for this movie. Initially it wasn’t even remotely intended to be an ecological fable, but rather was a first contact tale: the ship is about to be retired and scrapped, and the captain is about to be put out to pasture. He steals the ship and heads off into space, hanging out with his three robot buddies and gradually going a bit nuts. Eventually he receives a signal that he realizes is from aliens. The ship’s owners, meanwhile, are chasing him, and he goes into ‘silent running mode’ (like on a sub) to make it hard to find him. The rest of the movie is a race against time to contact the aliens before his own people get him. Ultimately, he sends one of the drones out in a pod on a course to intercept the aliens, and he’ll communicate with them through the robot. The cops bust in and kill him with a flamethrower, however, so the little Drone, not knowing what to do, just pulls out a snapshot of itself with the other two ‘bots and the captain – a ‘family photo.’ The aliens are confused and don’t know what to make of this, though it’s obviously rather poignant. For some reason.

The End.

Growing up, my more Right Wing friends disliked this movie for obvious reason. However he more I watched it, the more I realized this isn’t quite the propaganda it’s purported as. Rather, it’s an entirely different kind of propaganda. It’s not “Freeman Lowell is an ecological messiah who dies to save nature itself,” but rather “Things have come to a sorry pass when we have to rely on ineffectual losers like this.” The movie is interesting because it isn’t about the war to save the biosphere – that war was lost long before the movie even starts – this is just the shouting that takes place afterwards. This isn’t a terribly pro-green movie, it’s more like a criticism of the environmental movement of the 1960s/70s.

If you go at it from that angle, it’s pretty interesting, if a bit dull. If you go at it from the straight-ahead angle that pretty much everyone, left or right or indifferent, takes on it, it’s really just dull.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (2017)

It’s completely unfair to compare one movie to another in order to judge it, rather than letting it stand on its own merits, or lack thereof. In this instance, however, it’s impossible not to: Both this film, and The Fifth Element (1997) were written and directed by Luc Besson. While both films are very different, they also couldn’t be more similar. In essence, “Valerian,” serves as an example of how easy it would have been for “The Fifth Element” to go horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.

Yeah, yeah, I know that’s unfair. It’s also true. Moving on:

The film tells the story of Valerian and Laureline, an impossibly young couple of badass special ops/secret agent types for the government of the galaxy in the 28th century. They get called in to recover the last living example of an animal, and in the process get swept up in a great big conspiracy on an impossibly huge space station to….[sigh]…you know, there’s not really very much plot here. The conspiracy is primarily an excuse for running and jumping and shooting and ruminations on the salvific power of love, and also a small role for Rhianna. Not much else matters here, but it’s actually not dissimilar to Titan A.E. (2000), a crappy movie written by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund. You’d think woulda been a slam dunk, but, nope. Likewise, you’d figure Besson revisiting the same general parameters of The Fifth Element would have been a slam dunk or at least a dunk, or, you know, at least a basket, but, nope, you’d be wrong about that, too.

I’m not gonna waste a lot of time on the plot. To be fair, The Fifth Element didn’t have a lot of plot either (Evil force wants to destroy earth for some reason. Cool guy and unbelievably gorgeous badass girl stop it, with help from a priest, hinderance from a Cajun billionaire, and random histrionics from Chris Tucker), but there it works and here it doesn’t. Why?

A large part of that is charisma. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne are no Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. I can’t stress that enough: Bruce Willis was at the peak of his Bruce Willisness at the time, which has, sadly, receeded with time. Milla, though never the greatest actress, has always oozed magnetism far in excess of her looks (And her looks are pretty great on their own). He had a tired-but-still-cockshure swagger, and she had a mix of vulnerable badassitude and innocent sexyness that you can’t help but like. And they seemed to like each other.

Dane and Cara, by contrast, exude no sparks whatsoever, and the film works best when they’re not sharing the screen. Cara is very pretty, and an a very successful model, edging into acting, pretty much just like Milla was twenty years ago, and a lot of her scenes aren’t bad, but somehow, she lacks the utterly va-va-voom quality. Dane is more of a cardboard standie than he is a character. His dialog sounds like he has no idea what his lines mean, and his delivery brings to mind an early, extra-stoned Keanu Reeves. He’s not nearly so handsome, though. His first scene involves him and Cara rolling over each other in a relative state of undress that is supposed to be sexy, but is somehow more chaste than a nun doing long division. Go figure. Besson generally has a good eye for casting, but here he’s completely off his game.

Apart from Rhianna – who is awesome – there are no side-characters of note to really pick up any of the slack. I can’t say enough good things about Rhianna, though. The closest Fifth Element analogue would be the Diva, but she’s much different, much expanded, and honestly the best thing about the movie, despite only being in it for about ten minutes. When she showed up, the energy level ramped up considerably, and I thought, “Oh, FINALLY, two thirds of the way through the movie finally found its feet,” but, nope. As soon as she’s gone, it falters again.

Another part of the problem is special effects. There are a ton of ’em here. I don’t think there’s a single FX-free shot in the entire movie, and it’s plenty-high quality, easily as good or better than Avatar. The character designs are much better than Avatar, and yet, somehow, it’s all so sugarless and bland. The CGI is rather gloomily-lit, which seems the convention of the day, though I’ve never understood why, and it’s hard to get worked up about the stuff we’re seeing, despite how expansive and expensive it is. Just as Cara arguably has a better body than Milla, and yet somehow lacks that certain special something that draws you to her, this movie has unquestionably better special effects that just kinda don’t leave much impression. “Yeah, they’re beautiful. Whatever. Next?” Just out of curiosity, I showed my mom – who has no interest in, nor understanding of Science Fiction – the trailers for The Fifth Element and Valerian, then asked her which seemed better to her. She immediabely picked Fifth Element because it was so much brighter, both visually and in tone. I can’t argue with that.

There’s a trend towards increasingly practical effects and sets thanks, mostly, to Disney’s new crop of Star Wars films, but it’d been going on for a while before that. Despite being 37 years old, The Empire Strikes Back, with its oldschool spectacle still looks pretty good, if dated. The far more recent prequels look like cutscenes from video games, and in another decade they’ll look like a trip to toontown. Seriously: Remember 25 years ago when Babyon 5 blew us all away visually? Have you seen it recently? Yikes! Painful. Likewise, Fifth Element has aged well, whereas this film, for all its cutting edge splendor, looks like, well, a Lucas film. That’s not a compliment.

The soundtrack is also disappointing. Eric Serra’s Fifth Element soundtrack is – if you can find a bootleg of it – still very good listening. Combining ethnic music, opera, hip hop, house beats, orchestral stuff, electronic stuff, and kitchen sinks, it was fairly experimental, but still melodic and reassuring enoguh to really drive the story. Even without the movie, it’s memorable. Alexandre Desplat’s Valerian score is a generic orchestral fare that continues the inexplicable current trend of soundtracks deliberately not drawing attention to themselves.

Besson’s obligatory ruminations on the God-like powers of love are present, but they’re hamstrung here, again, by the limp toast nature of our ostensible stars. Besson’s a good director. He even made me care a little bit about the couple in Angel-A (2006), which had about the least likely paring in film history, and not much story beyond “Believe in yourself,” and a semi-fallen angel who lures guys into the bathroom with promises of sex, then chastely beats them up and mugs them. How can he pull that off? How can he pull off a dorky concept like “Subway,” (1986, which I saw in the theaters back then, and which was my introduction to him) and somehow blow this? I dunno.

There are odd sutures in the screenplay that suggest it was re-written several times in a hurry, possibly on the fly while making the film. What are we to make of the scene where Valerian is given title to an entire kingdom/species, which has no payoff whatsoever? Or an extended introduction to the machine part of the space station, which we then never visit, and which has no relevance in the story? Those have got to be periscopes. There’s just oodles of exposition, too. Valerian rattles off his whole life in the lengthiest, clunkiest monologue in recent memory, but it’s supposed to sound conversational. The ships’ computer does the same thing about The City. It just keeps happening.

The film is not without its good bits. The opening montage, showing the evolution of The City from 1975 to the 24th century was every bit as effortlessly clever and effective as Besson is on a good day. Rhianna, as I said, was really good. The gag with the had made me laugh my ass off. There’s a chase sequence that consists almost entirely of a tracking shot behind a guy as he runs through a series of walls that’s the best set piece in the film. Some people really like the Big Market sequence, though I found it a little distracting and confusing. The point is that there’s some good stuff here, there’s just not really a movie to tie them together.

I realize that this hasn’t been a fair review, and that all my complaints basically revolve around this not being “The Sixth Element.” It’s true that I did expect it to be the same, yet better. What I didn’t expect was, “The Fourth Element:” The same, yet worse. Devoid of everything that made the original a hoot.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Panic in Year Zero!” (1962)

The only thing better than discovering a B movie you’ve never seen in a genre you like is discovering a good B movie in that genre. “Panic in Year Zero!” is a damn good movie. Damn good, I say.

Directed by, and starring onetime-superstar Ray Milland, and co-starring a pre-beach-movie Frankie Avalon, along with a cast of nobodies, it tells the tribulations off a normal American family in World War III. Well, a normal American family with a dad who slips into a watered-down Welsh accent, but, hey, whatever.

Despite having a budget of a couple hundred bucks, plus whatever was left over at the Craft Services table when the previous production wrapped, the movie uses it exceptionally well. “Low Budget” doesn’t mean “Bad,” and if you use your low budget effectively, it can give you qualities that a bigger, slicker film can’t. This movie uses its limitations excellently. I expected it to be yet another ‘Family escapes, then gets attacked my mutant monsters’ turd. Instead, I got an intelligent, well directed, pretty well acted movie that both shows the best qualities of the mid-century American can-do attitude, and also how thin the veil of civilization really is. It pulls off the juggling act of optimism,  pessimism, and and mild action all at the same time.

Much like Red Dawn (The 1984, not the crappy remake), we start out with normal slice-of-life as the family gets ready to go on a fishing trip for the weekend. Shortly after they get into the foothills, they start seeing flashes and hearing booms they mistake for lightning. The dad quickly realizes the truth, and we get the ONE special effect in the film (A matte of a mushroom cloud with the cast staring at it from the road).

From there the tension ratchets up. All the radio stations are dead. They find one from Bakersfield which seems perfectly normal, but it abruptly goes dead. They pull over at a payphone to try to call grandma, but can’t get through. They start getting nearly run off the road by cars hauling ass out of the city. They stop at a restaurant, which is packed with scared people and running out of everything. This being almost the ’50s, the dad hits on the idea of pulling off the highway and driving through some of the smaller towns that may not have heard yet. This works for a while.

What makes this work is that the dad is a decent all-American (though occasionally Welsh-accented) guy, determined to be fair and decent with everyone. He is burdened with being the only one in his family who really grasps what’s going on, however, and the lines between what he will and won’t do blur pretty quickly. Initially he pays for gas when they need a refill, and pays for groceries – this being before the idea that money is useless has really sunk in yet – but pretty soon he’s beating people up to take what he needs, then leaving behind as much cash as he thinks is fair to salve his consciousness.

At one point he starts a fire to create a traffic jam so he can get his car across the highway and down a dirt road on the other side. This causes one oncoming car to burst into flames, and the driver to be clearly injured, but dad don’t stop.

What keeps this from going all Breaking Bad is that he sees what’s happening. He’ll do anything to keep his family safe (And fails, because he is just a guy, not some superman or army vet who’s trained for this stuff). Example:

Wife: “You can’t be so hard on yourself.”
Dad [depressed]: “I killed two men.”
Wife: “I tried to kill them, too, I just wasn’t a good enough shot.”

Later on, when his son, Frankie Avalon, shoots a guy in the arm, he gets a little too worked up over it. “I could have blown his head clean off!” He likes his newfound power. Dad tears into it, talking about how the best part of civilization is gone, and how they’re going to have to do some uncivilized things to survive, “But I want you to hate it. Every time you have to do something bad to another man, it’s your duty to hate it, because that’s all there is left of civilization: What’s inside of us. If we lose that, we’re no better than them.”

Eventually, they manage to find a place to hid out in the mountains, and do pretty well there for a couple months, with only infrequent news by radio (They get five minutes of emergency broadcasts every two hours, on the hour).

Then the film gets unexpectedly vicious. Some wandering thugs attack the daughter. Mom scares them off with a gun. Dad and Frankie come back to the camp, later on and see Daughter crying and the mom looking forlorn and holding her close. Dad asks, “Did they…hurt her?”

Mom nods, yes.

I was dropjawed! This is an early ’60s adventure film. Teenage girls don’t get raped in these movies! They make it very clear that she did, though. She behaves in a tragic fashion in the aftermath, apologizing to her dad as if it’s her fault, talking about how she doesn’t want to go back to civilization because she’s ‘not the same,’ and so on.

In a run in with the same thugs later on, we discover that they’ve murdered four people, and are holding another teenage girl prisoner, using her as a sex slave.

Again: holy crap!

This girl is a better actress then the daughter, and telegraphs the trauma better. There’s an oh-this-is-just-wrong romantic subplot about Frankie developing a crush on her and putting the moves on her, but before I could even say, “Oh, God, no, don’t go all stupid on me now,” the girl completely shuts him down, and he realizes what he’s done.

Later on someone gets shot and they need a doctor. On the way, they hear on the radio that the enemy has surrendered. They manage to find a doctor, who insists they roll up their sleeves before they come in (“Can’t be too careful. Junkies are everywhere”). Even as its drawing to a close, the film maintains its dual viewpoints

Dad: “The war’s over! We won!”
Doctor [sarcastically] “Well ding, ding for us.”
Dad [put off]: “You have a very odd sense of humor.”
Doctor: “The war is over, over there, but that doesn’t change anything over here. Now, you stay on the back roads. And you keep your gun handy. Our country is still full of thieving, murdering patriots.”

So Dad manages to keep his family alive, if not safe. Or does he? the movie is a little ambiguous about that as well. We don’t actually find out if the person who got shot survives or dies. It’s implied that probably survived, it’s made clear that they have a good chance of surviving, but the film steadfastly refuses to give us a clear-cut happy ending. All we’re told is that we can not allow endings, only new beginnings.

Wow! This is strongly recommended.

There’s negatives, of course. Frankie looks like a teenager, and him viewing the disaster as a fast track to becoming a man is a neat twist, but he’s not good enough to quite pull it off. The daughter is just a plain bad actress. The mom is a bit of a schlub. Frankie spends two days in a car with open windows, and never gets as much as a follicle out of place. Damn, that’s some hair helmet he’s got going on there. The soundtrack – a big, bold, jazzy, swingin’ score – is completely inappropriate for the movie. “The Wilderness” is clearly a soundstage, and some of the day-for-night shots are painfully obvious.

From a modern perspective, the movie is pretty sexist. Women are victims. They can’t defend themselves. They’re baggage. A lot of viewers may find this offensive or insulting.

From the perspective of the time, though, I think this is pretty on the mark. Women were not trained to be self-reliant. Given that their lives were intended to be cooking, cleaning, and shopping, I think the movie actually acquits itself pretty well. Mom is eventually packing a gun, as is one of the girls. Two girls get raped, but they don’t go suicidal or completely catatonic. It’s made clear that they’ll survive and they still have worth. They’ve been violated, they’ve not been sullied.

Bottom line: This is actually a better movie than a lot of big budget World War III films. It’s a forgotten minor classic. Watch it.

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977)

There’s two kinds of James Bond movies: The good ones and the dumb ones. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is far and away my favorite of the dumb ones, and if I’m honest, it’s one of my favorite Bond films of all times.

That said, I was operating mostly on memory until yesterday. I’d videotaped it off of TV, trimmed for TV, full of commercial breaks, back around 1980, and as pretty much the only Bond flick I had, I watched it endlessly for a year or two. I honestly don’t think I ever saw the complete, uncut thing until this weekend. It was better than I remembered. I was pleasantly surprised.

Firstly, for a dumb film it’s not as dumb as I remembered. Apart from Kurt Jurgens’ dumb-but-cool Legion of Doom headquarters that rises out of the sea, they play the whole thing very straight. Even Jaws, the over-the-top murderous henchman, isn’t a cartoon. He’s genuinely frightening in some scenes (Such as on the train), he’s a seven-foot-tall freak of nature, insanely strong, and his unkillability just kind of seems believable.

Secondly, despite being a terrible, terrible actress, Barbara Bach makes an unusually strong partner in the film. As Bond’s more-or-less equal-and-opposite from the USSR, she’s not helpless, and contributes a good deal to the film in the first half. Watching her and Bond try to out-spy each other to get the MacGuffin was a lot of fun, and she does get the drop on him once or twice. When they’re partnered up in the second act of the film, she contributes less, and in the final act she’s basically a damsel in distress. That’s disappointing, and her whole “I’m going to kill you when the mission is over, James,” thing is resolved way too easily. Still, I’d say she’s easily the best Bond Girl since Tracy (1969) and prior to Natalya (1995).

Thirdly: The Liparus. It is the greatest and largest villain’s lair in the entire franchise, and even now, thirty-five years after I last saw the film, I’m in awe of it. It’s a life-size set with not one, but three full-sized submarine mock ups in it, and 1.2 million gallons of water. The final battle makes the ninja assault on SPECTRE’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice seem like a minor tiff.

This is just an unspeakably lavish film in terms of set design. It’s the most Bondian looking Bond film ever. In addition to the Liparus, there’s Atlantis, the bad guy’s OTHER lair. (Yes, that’s right, the bad guy has TWO lairs!) The Naval Base office has a cool, slanted ceiling, is all pre-stressed concrete and glass walls, and must go back two hundred feet, and it’s only in one scene. The brig on the Liparus is equally huge, and again it’s only used once. The submarine sets – unrealistically huge – are pretty impressive. This whole thing just looks super-crazy-no-way-gonzo-over-the-top, and that’s honestly what we want, right? A bad guy who isn’t content to destroy the world, he’s going to destroy it with style.

In short, up until the one hour mark, it is a genuinely good Bond movie, which I think most people have forgotten. I know I did.

Right at the one hour mark, it turns into a live action cartoon, of course. I was watching it with my son when a motorcycle sidecar turns into a rocket. He said, “FINALLY,” with a kind of hilarious weariness. From then on, it’s just sillier and sillier – a submarine car, a supertanker that eats submarines, Jaws suddenly falling hundreds of feet off a cliff and just shaking it off, Kurt Jurgens attempting to start a nuclear war so that he can play Adam-and-Even in his new underwater civilization. It’s just dopey, and I’ll be the first to admit, but it does a surprisingly good job of selling itself. The Liparus sub-eater is so cool that I’m willing to overlook the 120 or so things that are wrong with it.

They take it a little too far on occasion – such as shooting a boat out the side of the Liparus like a rocket for no good reason, rather than just putting it in the water – which breaks the suspension of disbelief. Still: This is the dumb half of the movie that everyone remembers. What I think they don’t remember is that it’s really entertainingly dumb.

There’s a lot to like here. The direction is great, the action scenes cut together really well, and the Arch Villain’s plot is the first time in the franchise that anyone wanted to destroy the world just to play God. (Interestingly, the first irredeemably genocidally insane villain in Bondom is an environmentalist).  This is one of the very few films – two? Three? – that in any way deals with Bond’s pre-spy life, his dead wife gets a name check, and Bond’s reaction shows that he’s still messed up over it.

As that’s a neat scene, I’ll recount it: Bond and our Soviet agent meet at a bar (In Egypt! It was a very different, less fundamentalist world in 1977, and would remain so for about a year) and he immediately starts flirting with her. She rattles off a bunch of facts about him, “…has had many lady friends, but only married once -”
Bond [abruptly]: “That’s enough.”
Anya: “So you are sensitive, Mister Bond.”
Bond [Dryly]: “About some things. Thank you for the drink.” [Abruptly walks away without having touched it]

Of course there’s negatives. The soundtrack is a bit too disco-influenced. Bond’s “Hello, let’s bone” shenanigans come across almost like parodies of porn films, they’re so cringingly awful. As opposed to the charming guy with an undercurrent of menace, which is the way the character had always been played (And Moore is charming in this, by the way), he’s suddenly some kind of sexual superhero who’s mere presence causes women to swoon within seconds. Or, in one inexplicable scene, to sacrifice herself to save his life after just one kiss. To be clear: Bond has always gotten laid a lot, and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s just done really badly here. Barbara Bach’s character is hopping in the sack with Bond just days after her long-term boyfriend was killed. “Ok,” you think, “It’s the 1970s. She’s a swinger or something, it means nothing.” Nope, they play it like she’s falling in love with 007. Kurt Jurgens is strangely underdeveloped as a supervillain. Why do they capture the third sub? They already have the two they need.

The movie goes way too Matt Helm in the last five or ten minutes. I’m being literal. One of the final fights resolves itself exactly like the one at the end of “Murderer’s Row,” in which an electromagnet is used to take out a henchman. The Escape Pod is rocket powered for some reason, and is a big round bed stocked with champagne and books and a premium sound system. The obligatory “The boss stumbles in on Bond in dilecto flagrante” scene honestly is smarmy in the same way the same scenes were smarmy for Dean Martin.

Cringe.

But this movie really is no end of fun, despite its legions of flaws.

A couple final notes:

Though it’s never openly stated, the bad guys would have gotten away with it. The only reason they don’t is because one of the bad guy’s people getting greedy and offering to sell secret MacGuffin technology to the superpowers. Had Stromberg’s staff been loyal, the good guys would never have known what was up, the plot would have gone off without a hitch, and everyone on earth would have died.  I like that.

This movie marked the first time anyone had ever seen a jet ski. They were in the prototype stage, and introduced to the public here (At this point called a ‘Wetbike’ because British people are bad at naming things)

This movie also marks the introduction of the Lotus Esprit. Bond’s car in the movie is one of only two working prototypes in the world at the time. Sadly, it didn’t really turn into a submarine.

Weirdly, the very next movie in the series has almost the exact same plot: Supervillain wants to wipe out the world so he can play God and start over with his hand-chosen Adams and Eves. Bond is teamed up with a spy (CIA this time), and the basic structure and progression of the story is almost identical. It involves Jaws. “Moonraker,” just outright sucks, though, and is nothing but live-action cartoon from start to finish.

Ok, I’m done. This is not the greatest movie ever made, but it is almost undoubtedly better than you remember, and well worth a watch on a Saturday night, if you’ve got nothing better to do.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1968)

It is the future! The year 1972…or 1975…or 1979, it’s a little unclear, but definitely some time in the ‘70s, as seen from 1968.

On the whole, it seems much nicer than the ‘70s we actually got: there’s no sign of Jimmy Carter, no wide ties, no loud leisure suits, no disco, no bell bottoms. Instead, this version of the ‘70s looks pretty much identical to the ‘60s: Skinny suits, reserved demeanor, a lot of optimism about technology, and a lot of cold war tension (Détente not being something envisioned in the ’60s). A Bobby Kennedy impersonator is president. (This film was made in the narrow window between when Bobby announced he’d be running and the time he was assassinated.)

In a supremely misguided decision, the entire nuclear defense and offence of our country is turned over to a computer buried deep in the Rockies. This computer is called “WOP-R”…oh, no, wait, different flick: This computer is called “Skynet,” no, wait…uhm…“Colossus.” Yes, it was called “Colossus.” It was designed and built by Dr. Charles Forbin, and the complex is Krell-sized and quite literally impenetrable. We see Forbin locking it up in the opening credits.

At a press conference at the White House, the president Kennedy the Second and Forbin introduce the system to the public, and explain generally how it works: It monitors the whole world to eliminate human error from the whole pesky “Nuclear War” thing, thus rendering us – and by extension, earth – safe forever. Curiously, the president refers to “Citizens of the World” in his speech, but not “My fellow Americans.” Typical, really. Hippies.

Anyway, while at the press conference, Colossus goes goofy and says “There is another system” over and over. The staff boot the reporters out, discuss the situation with the CIA and Forbin, and conclude that the Soviets have built their own Colossus (Called “Guardian”) working from stolen US information. “You’ve got a spy on your staff,” the CIA chief tells Forbin. This is an interesting plot element that is never revisited, and left dangling at the end, mostly because the political situation changes so fast that such things become irrelevant.

Colossus requests a connection to Guardian, and on the urging of Forbin and the Soviet director of the Guardian project – Kuprin – the governments reluctantly agree. The machines connect over phone lines or something, and quickly set about developing a mathematical language to communicate in. Everyone is excited about this – a whole lot of new stuff gets developed during the day or so they’re developing the language, including some babble about “Finite Absolutes” – but they start to wig when they realize the machines are now speaking in a language no one else can understand. It’s the machine equivalent of one of those unsettling languages identical twins sometimes speak in.

The US and USSR attempt to break the connection. The machines warn that action will be taken if they’re not re-connected immediately. The president and the Soviet leader refuse. Both machines launch nuclear missiles aimed at the other country. Neither country can do anything to shut ‘em down. After a stressful couple minutes, they agree to reconnect the computers. Colossus shoots down the Soviet missile, but the American one is too close for Guardian to do anything about by that point, and it destroys a town in northern Russia.

Colossus explains that if the connection is broken again, he’ll start nuking lots of towns. Guardian does likewise. Both governments lie to cover up the incident. Forbin and Kuprin head to Rome to discuss a way to shut their Frankensteins down, but the machines figure out what’s going on, and dispatch the KGB to kill Kuprin “Or else we will vaporize Moscow.” This they then do. (the KGB, I mean. Moscow is fine.)

Back in the ‘States, Colossus dictates terms to Forbin: 24/7 surveillance. In the few hours before this goes into effect, he sets up a covert method for the government to sneak information to him through a mistress. (“If you doubt that a man needs a woman, check your history banks, and art units”) Of course he doesn’t actually have a mistress, so he just picks the prettiest computer tech, “Cherry Forever” from “Porky’s.” Colossus agrees to give them privacy while they do it. In fact, they don’t really do it – not at first, anyway – they just lie around naked and exchange information (“Oh, is *That* what you call it!” boom-chicka-wah-boom-chicka-wah-wah), but they eventually get around to the sweet monkey love. It’s all entertainingly awkwardly chaste and proprieticious early on, though.

Colossus/Guardian has a voice synthesizer at this point (An uncredited Paul Frees, who’s really good. Easily the best Cylon ever. Way better than Gary Owens.) and the CIA and KGB are gradually sabotaging their respective ICBMs under the machine’s noses. Meanwhile, the Colossus staff attempt to pull a Star Trek, overpowering the computer by having it run some kind of perpetual counting program, or whatever. The computer merely says “You are fools,” and has those responsible shot. Nuclear missiles in the US and USSR are to be re-targeted at neutral countries so Colossus/Guardian can control the whole world.

Colossus demands to address the world, so they let it. It explains who it is, and how it’s in charge of the world, and how this is for everyone’s best. “Problems unsolvable for you are simple for me,” and “I was built initially to prevent war. This has been done. War is gone forever.”

Best line in the movie:

This is the era of peace. It can be the peace of untold prosperity, or the peace of unburied dead.”

As illustration, it reveals that it knew about the sabotage all along, and nukes the locations that the CIA and KGB are currently working on, killing thousands. Forbin – very reserved through the whole movie – utterly freaks the hell out.

Colossus tells Forbin that eventually he’ll come to love and be in awe of the machines, and that all humanity will as well.

Never,” Forbin says.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Man oh man oh man oh man, what a great movie! Seriously, I had some major misgivings about watching this one. I remembered it as being pretty disappointing, and I’m not convinced I’d seen it since 1979 or so, but MAN it’s great! Faaaaaaaaaar better than I remembered.

First of all, the direction is awesome! There’s lots of well-composed shots, there’s lots of camera motion, and all kinds of neat elements like overlapping dialog where people are talking at the same time, or dealing with background chatter, or what have you. The blocking of the group scenes – involving videophones, even! – is done so well that it appears effortless. If you’ve ever done any stage or TV work, you’ll know how hard that is to pull off with large interacting groups. Really, this whole movie seems effortless, and I’m pretty impressed by that. Director Joseph Sargent brought a lot of those same elements to “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” four years later (The good one, not the crappy remake), and to a lesser degree in the “Space” miniseries in 1985, and several of the better “ Invaders“ episodes in the ‘60s. He’s good.

How good? You’re effectively dealing with a movie here that takes place almost exclusively inside of three large rooms, with a lot of talking. It would have been amazingly easy to blow it, and end up in “Creation of the Humanoids” territory, but they don’t. Instead, they make a very conscious effort to play it in the same vein as a cold war thriller, like, say, Failsafe, rather than in the dopier vein of a period SF film. He makes this work so well that when the movie ventures outside its principle locations, you kind of want it to get back in there. This is the kind of film it would be ninety-nine times easier to do badly than to do well, and yet Sargent pulls it off very well indeed.

It’s a classic.

The cast is really solid, too: Hans Jorg Gudegast plays Forbin. He’s better known by his stage name of “Eric Braeden,” and even better known still as “Victor” from The Young and the Restless. He also played Irwin Rommel surrogate Hans Dietrich on “Rat Patrol.” He plays Forbin as an interesting mix of youthful idealism and reserved Werner von Braunism (If that’s a word. And if it isn’t it should be). He’s composed, very confident, very smart, very quick to grab any advantage that comes his way, and yet he doesn’t have much of an emotional life. When Colossus turns out to be more than he’d anticipated, he’s overjoyed. When it quickly gets out of hand, he’s annoyed, but treats it as an intellectual puzzle that he’s certain he’ll overcome eventually. It’s a game – telegraphed by him playing chess with Colossus at one point. As the movie goes on, he gets a bit more ragged, has a hard time keeping his calm face on. When Kuprin is killed, he’s startled. When his own people are executed in front of him, he’s heartbroken. When Guardian nukes the US he snaps. When he declares his defiance from the machines at the end, you know – you just know – that it’s empty bravado. They’re right: Forbin is too fascinated with them to remain angry for long, and these kinds of emotional traumas are just wearing him down and making him an easier target. The machines have won not only the whole world, but the soul of their creator, or soon they will anyway.

Susan Clark doesn’t make too much of an impression. She’s pretty enough, but they deliberately play that down. She does come across as pretty smart, and her awkwardness with the ‘mistress’ situation is played very well, particularly when the idea is first breached and she’s a bit drop jawed by it. Apart from that, she plays her scenes in what I like to call “The Barbara Bain Mode,“ a lot of calm, quiet, measured talking while walking around reservedly. She’s not the kind of person to freak out, she’s not the kind of person who needs a rescue, even if she isn’t a forceful personality. There’s just enough of a romance angle here to flesh out her character a little, but not nearly enough to be annoying or tedious. There’s a neat little horrified flash from Susan Clark looking at Forbin at the end where she realizes that Forbin’s soul will soon be forfeit.

There’s some nudity in the movie, all filmed cleverly. For instance, Clark strips down in one scene, and is obscured artfully by a champagne glass which distorts her image just enough – and artistically enough – that it doesn’t feel gratuitous.

Gordon Pinsent really is a dead ringer for the Bobby Kennedy.

William Schallert plays the CIA chief. He’s typically pretty good, and his oddly grim sense of humor is a nice touch to the film. James Hong is in the movie, but does nothing apart from smoke cigarettes and look nervous. Marion “Happy Days” Ross has a bit part as one of the computer techs.

There’s a lot of interesting statements about politics in this flick. The idea that machines should control our weapons is clearly driven by fear and justified by an optimism about “The Human Millennium” which will unlock all our potential, “We can do all this, but first we must have peace.” When Colossus/Guardian (Now identifying itself as “World Control”) addresses the world at the end of the film, the speech is oddly similar to the one the president gave, announcing “The Human Millennium” has begun. It’s interesting because the government got *EXACLY* what they wanted, and they’re horrified by it!

Be careful what you wish for: Not only is there no more threat of war, there’s no more need for government at all. This is presented, interestingly for the time, as a bad thing. Human life is protected, arguably more secure under “World Control” than at any point in our history, and yet it’s also oddly irrelevant. Humanity kind of no longer matters on one level because we’re no longer in the driver’s seat.

Whether it was intentional or not, what we’re looking at here is basically a dismantling of the early sixties Kennedy idealism and futurism as the ideas come home to roost. It’s no surprise that the president is *clearly* supposed to be Bobby, since this film essentially is the conclusion of a process that started with JFK: the attempt to perfect the world. But is there any room for people in a perfect world? The film argues that there is, but only if we’re housebroken. But if we’re housebroken, are we still human? By the end of the film, “World Control” has effectively become a god, and a very wrathful one, a Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who sow disharmony. We spent a lot of time working our way out from under that kind of setup, it seems a shame to go right back into it, only for real this time.

The Machine is the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, invasive in every aspect of people’s lives, and such areas as are left to man as his own purview – sex, alcohol, the occasional entertainment – are essentially trivial, more about being given the illusion of choice rather than an actual choice. Bread and Circuses to distract people from their slavery. Forever.

And as is very clear (To me at least), humanity *WILL* come to love the master. 

MOVIE REVIEW: “Day of the Dolphin” (1973)

What a strange, laconic film this is! Seriously: It starts out relaxed, doesn’t move very far, and takes its own sweet time getting there. Also, it picks an odd place to end, proving Welles’ old saw about the difference between tragedy and triumph being where you decide to stop telling the story.

In a nutshell – and believe you me, it doesn’t take a very big nut to hold this film – we’ve got George C. Scott as a marine biologist living on an island off the coast of Florida with his surprisingly-but-not-inappropriately young wife, a bunch of interns, and a couple dolphins. The star of the research facility is “Alpha” (“Fa” for short), a dolphin born in captivity and raised by humans without any contact with his own kind. As a result, he’s “Learned to speak people talk” as they say in Pokemon. Specifically, he can speak English, a bit, though it’s kinda’ hard to understand. He can understand English, too. A good corporation is funding the research in exchange for the tax dodge it provides, while the evil Paul Sorvino is posing as a reporter trying to gain access for some nefarious purpose or other.

As Fa has hit puberty, they give him a girlfriend, “Beta” (“Bea” for short). George and Mrs. George (Played by his real-life wife Trish Van Devere) are called away from the island by the company, and one of the interns gets a call from George saying the dolphins are to be loaded on to a yacht that’s gonna’ show up soon. When George and Trish get back to the island, they find Fa and Bea gone, along with one of the interns. Then the evil Paul Sorvino appears and explains – in a pretty good twist, actually – that he’s not evil, in fact the company and the intern are evil. They’ve kidnapped the dolphins for some nefarious purpose, and Paul Sorvino was actually trying to keep them from it. In the second good twist of the movie, we find that Sorvino *AND* the Corporate Goons are both working for the US government, albeit opposing factions.

The bad guys train Bea to place a bomb on the president’s yacht, which will kill him. Fa escapes, and George explains that bombs are designed to kill, so Fa warns Bea. The two of them plant the bomb on the bad guy’s yacht instead, which blows up and kills them in what results in one of the funnier uses of the “S-word” in early 70s SF. The movie doesn’t end, there, however. We get about another fifteen minutes or so where our heroes – George, Trish, Paul, and the interns – realize that the corporate goons aren’t going to let them live because they know too much. Sorvino basically bails on ‘em as a plane carrying gunmen approaches. George and Trish drive Fa and Ba away, then go hide in the woods, waiting to die.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Wow, that’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? This would be a great kids film were it not so glacially paced, didn’t have profanity, and didn’t end with everyone dying and the dolphins coming across somewhat like abandoned babies in the wilderness. It’s a weird film. It really is. Really, I could have summarized it in less space, and if we’re honest the stuff of note that actually happens in each act is haiku length, but it’s padded out to 90 minutes.

Thing is: despite that, it’s an engaging film. The sedate qualities give it an almost verite feel, or maybe a documentary feel. Not exactly, it’s not intended to be like that, but everything just takes so long that you kind of feel like you’re waiting along with these people for stuff to happen. It’s not an art film, it’s not really taking the long Russian road, but even by 1973 standards it’s pretty slow. It’s not surprising it was a bomb.

There’s also an interesting disconnect between the sweet, adorable, baby-talking dolphin (Bea never learns to speak) and the generally misanthropic feel of the movie as a whole. George C. Scott is playing a man who doesn’t like men, and prefers the company of fish. His wife takes an even dimmer view of corporate America. Paul Sorvino – who’s great in the movie, but seems a bit like a straight Nathan Lane this time out – is a government spook who’s perfectly content with the fact that he’s sent out to kill other spooks, and that they’re coming after him. The idea being that there’s a sort of perpetual undeclared civil war in the government. I actually like that idea. It’s got some potential legs, even if it’s crazy 1970s paranoid. The fact that the government tries to kill the president, and then tries to kill everyone who found out about it is, once again, just crazy ‘70s. At one point George and Trish discuss the fact that they’ve made Fa like us, and kind of doomed him to our miserable sort of existence in the process.

As Prometheus myths go, it’s sort of interesting. Generally it’s “Don’t take fire from the gods because they’ll kick your ass.” In this case, it’s more like “The gods give you fire because they like you, but it just ends up hurting and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Sorry.”

In fact I sort of admire the movie for giving us a perfectly acceptable happy ending, and then spending fifteen minutes tearing it apart. I found myself wondering if saving the president *was* happy as it cost the good guys their lives, and wasn’t any too good for the dolphins. I guess the climax of the film is happy in that Fa and Bea survive, and they really are innocents caught in this, but their being released out into the sea is pretty jagged and heartbreaking. Earlier in the film, George said Fa only talked because he loved him and his wife, but in the company of others of his kind, he’d quickly stop, he couldn’t teach others, and that it required a lot of effort for him to do it. It’s not hard to extrapolate from that to the idea that a dolphin raised entirely by people isn’t going to survive in the wild. Perhaps Bea will take care of him, but I think the kids are screwed, really. Yeah, a chance for survival is better than certain death, but still…

The movie is interestingly nebulous with regards to animal sapience. George says that all he’s really got is a dolphin approximating human speech while responding to some verbal cues. It could be training. Clearly it’s more than that, but it may not be *THAT* much more. It can be argued that Fa isn’t much more than a dog that can say “I love you.” I do think we’re supposed to believe he’s intelligent, but the part that interests me is that he’s clearly not nearly *AS* intelligent as humans. He’s an adolescent dolphin, so he’s probably not going to get much smarter than he is, but he seems to think and act on the level of a three or four year old kid. Factor in the obvious environmental differences and all, and he’s still skewing very young and/or not amazingly bright. Like 50 IQ, or thereabouts? A genius for anything other than a human, but by our standards not much.

Acting is, on the whole, pretty good. Well, heck, it’s got George C. Scott, and apart from that sitcom where he was the president, I’ve never really seen him give a phoned in performance. He’s not always great, but he’s always fully engaged, you know? I’ve never really seen him play a smart-guy-scientist-type before. Makes me want to watch some more of his roles.

To my surprise, we actually still had a presidential yacht in 1973. It was the “USS Sequoyah” and it was sold in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. Man, we could have used some exploding dolphins in those days, huh? Anyway: the pictures I found make it apparent that the *Real* presidential yacht was a piece of crap compared to the one in the film.

Edward Herrmann is in this movie, basically being very young and very skinny. He’s best known from “Gilmore Girls” and “The Lost Boys.”

The motorboat that Scott et all use to get to and from the mainland is called the “Erewhon.” That’s a 19th century Utopian satirical novel that is so obscure I occasionally think I must have hallucinated it. Thus the name really popped out at me. I really should review that book here some time…

This movie was written by Buck Henry. Yeah, *THAT* Buck Henry. Mike Nichols, the director, is most famous for “The Graduate.” He’s also a stand-up comic. Furthermore, this movie was based on a French novel which was, allegedly, a comedic parody of the cold war. All of which strikes me as odd since the film is so doggedly un-funny (Apart from one really great bit of scatology referenced above.) Just weird.

On a personal note, I’ve occasionally mentioned how seeing things I used to like, but haven’t seen in 30 or 40 years puts me in the same room with an earlier version of myself, right? Well I used to love this film as a kid – cute talking dolphins, what’s not to love? – and it was on TV constantly. I assumed I’d be hanging out with young me in no time, but, no. Apart from “It’s hard for them to do it” and “Fa love pa” and the scene where Fa heads off Bea, I honestly didn’t remember a lick of it. Weirdest thing. Also, the parts I did remember are far, far, far, far longer in my memory than in the actual film. This makes me think I must have been crazy young, with a little kid’s kinda’ goofy time sense.

Bottom line: This is an interesting film, but only just barely. It’s not really worth putting any effort into finding, but if you stumble across at 3AM when you’re riddled with insomnia, you could do worse than watch it.

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Good, The Bad, and the Weird” (2008)

“The Good, The Bad, and the Weird,” is just about the most amazing Korean film I’ve ever seen. It’s a sprawling, insane love-letter to spaghetti westerns in general, and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” in particular, as you’d expect from the title. It’s also strongly influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, believe it or not, The Road Warrior. (Which I suppose brings things full circle, since The Road Warrior is basically a postapocalyptic spaghetti western by design).

The plot only superficially overlaps with its more-or-less namesake. Basically, “Hey, there’s a treasure, lets go get it,” and three characters who can’t be trusted and don’t like each other trying to beat the others to it. It culminates in a three-way Mexican standoff. (Manchurian standoff? Despite being Korean, this movie takes place in Manchuria in 1939, very shortly before World War II breaks out.) That’s a pretty broad comparison, though, and most of what actually happens in the film has nothing to do with the Eastwood flick. For instance, at no point in this movie do we diverge from the plot for a half hour to help the Confederate army blow a bridge to slow the Union advance.

“The Good,” is a Korean bounty hunter who inexplicably dresses like a spaghetti western cowboy. Got the hat, got the duster, the awesome rifle, the quick-draw tie-down holster with six guns that never run out of bullets. He’s awesome. He’s also not in very much of the movie, as he’s, well, “The Good,” and Good isn’t nearly as much fun as evil or weird. If you haven’t seen TGTB&TU, Eastwood’s “Good” is only in relation to the other two. He’s not a nice guy. This film’s “Good” is, though, so he tends to be absent a lot. He’s an insurmountable badass, however, and has just about the most amazing gunfight ever a third of the way into the film.

“The Bad” is played by Lee Byung-hun, whom I’ve never heard of, but he just oozes “Movie Star.” Remember the first time you saw Chow Yun-Fat in “The Killer,” when he walks in with the suit and the sunglasses and the guns, and just *owns* the screen? I remember my wife saying “If he could speak English, he’d own Hollywood.” Well, Lee Byung-hun doesn’t quite have THAT level of grab-you-by-the-throat-and-force-you-to-pay-attention impact, but he’s darn close. He’s just flat-out evil here, and kind of inexplicably ’80s looking, with his New Wave haircut and his earring.

“The Weird” is oddly the main character. I know Eli Wallach got way more screen time in TGTG&etc than people remember, but his more-or-less equivalent here is the star: A not-very-bright crook with more ego than skills, occasional bouts of panic, cowardice, and an unexpected backstory that makes you wonder if his personality was real or just an act all along.

“The bounty on you is 300 Yon.”
“I’m only worth as much as a piano?”
“A used piano, at that.”

The movie deliberately bends time, with scenes that could come from any cowboy film, WW2 film, and chop-sockey flick playing side by side. It’s deliberately anachronistic, with the 80s rock star bad guy, cowboy good guy, and 1930s hobo comic lead, and this is deliberate, and a good choice.

Direction is very solid, though the steadycam gets a little too jittery in a couple scenes. Shot composition is nice. The action sequences are fantastic. There’s a fifteen-minute long chase sequence involving a motorcycle, a jeep, mongol horsemen, a gang of bandits, a cowboy, and the Imperial Japanese Army that just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more super-crazy-no-way gonzo over-the-top. It’s the kind of sequence that would make George Miller say, “I’ve wasted my life,” and start crying.

The score is gorgeous, too. It blends modern music, traditional East Asian stuff, and some very solid Ennio Morricone pastiches. It’s freakin’ awesome. I *WILL* find a copy of this for my collection.

My one caveat is that this is a pretty brutal film. Lots of blood, lots of splatter, some particularly vicious scenes with knives, two comedic-yet-really-gross skewerings. Not for the squeamish.

Just the same you guys, oh my gosh, this movie…! Wow.

SPOILER-FILLED MOVIE REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

There’s a line in “Airplane II: The Sequel,” where Julie Haggerty says, “I have the stragest feeling that we’ve done this exact same thing before.” I had that feeling a lot during this film. While this move was touted as a kind of spiritual rebirth of the Star Wars saga, in fact it war more or a remake of the original 1977 film. Seeing as the last time we saw Luke, Han, and Lea 32 years ago was also a sort of half-hearted semi-remake of the 1977 film, I have to say I was pretty disappointed.

Lets run the checklist, shall we? Things “Episode 4” has in common with “Episode 7:”

– Opening firefight in which stormtroomers make quick work of the good guys: Check.

– Black suited uber-bad-guy introduced marching through stormtroopers: Check

– Cute robot with information vital to the good guys sent wandering off through the desert to find help: Check

– Desert planet: Check

– 20-ish protagonist living a meneial existence in the desert without parents, who years for something more: Check

– Millenium Falcon: Check

– Millenium Falcon caled a piece of junk: Check

– Millenium Falcon taking off in a hurry under fire from the desert planet: Check

– Millenium Falcon using it’s turrets to take out TIE fighters: Check

– Old Guy long past his hero days functions as mentor/father figure to protagonist: Check

– Old Guy is killed by black-suited bad guy: Check

– A Cantina scene: Check

– A Cantina band playing out-of-place music (In this case, reggae): Check.

– Another protagonist who decides to bow out of the action, but then gets shamed back in to it: Check

– ANOTHER GODDAMNED DEATH STAR: Check. Dammit.

– A planet gets destroyed by the death star: Check.

– An Imperial general who’s somewhat at odds with the Black Suited Bad Guy: Check.

– A rag-tag rebellion: Check.

– A fighter battle to take out the death star, including fighting in a trench: Check.

– X-Wings, X-Wings, X-Wings: Check.

– Protagonist who begins to learn the ways of the force over the course of the movie: Check

– Light Saber duels: Check.

– Short goofy-looking alien with personal boundary issues espouces wisdom: Check.

– “This light saber belonged to your father:” Check.

– Awesome B-list 1960s actor in a small role: Check.

– Interrogations of the good guys by the bad: Check.

– Trash chute and/or compactor: Check (Though off-screen)

– Bad guys defeated: Check.

– Rebel base on a jungle-ish world: Check.

– “Death star is 15 minutes from firing:” Check.

– “I’ve got a bad feeling about this:” Check.

– Damn C3P0 being annoying: Check.

– Dishonest fat alien thing evidently runs desert planet or at least the chunk of it we see: Check.

– Running around inside, trying to escape from and/or sabotage an Imperial base: Check.

Honestly the list goes on and on and on and on. I don’t need to stop there, but I’m sure you get my point: This film was like a remixed version of Episode IV. There are also nods to the other two films, and one or two passive-aggressive stabs at the prequel trilogy.

Disappointing.

Now, don’t get me wrong: not all of those things are bad. Despite finding the film to be a bit of a let down, there was some cool stuff in it, and I am glad I saw it, and I’m super-glad I saw it on the big screen. There is a lot to like here, burried underneath the fan service.

Every single shot involving the Millenium Falcon provides a lifetime of badassery. It really is the sexiest, coolest hunk-o-junk in film, and it really gets put through its paces here. I also like that it’s still showing signs of repairs made resulting from damage in Return of the Jedi.

I liked the bad guy. The trailers deliberately caused a subtle fake-out among the fans. We all thought “Oh, it must be Luke! Luke’s gone bad!” This is still plausible until about halfway through the movie. Even the dialog is pretty straight forward, it comes across as fairly ambiguous until the big reveal.

His backstory (What we discover of it) is interesting and tragic, and his onetime status as the great hope of the New Republic in to essentially a Vader-wannabe is interesting, and mercifully unseen. As to the wannabe-stuff, that’s not me being insulting: The openly state that he’s got serious inferiority issues regarding Vader’s legacy.

He’s also rather polite and engaging and talks a lot. Whereas Vader was imposing and silent and overpowering, this guy is more thoughtful, more introspective, and a fair deal chattier. He also lacks Vader’s self control. The most impressive part of him, though, is that while Vader was steadfastly evil, and grows more conflicted over the course of the orige-trige (Yes, I’m calling it that from now on. Yes, I stole it from Cracked.com. Deal with it), our new bad guy starts out conflicted, but becomes more resolutely evil as the film progresses.

I like that Han and Lea didn’t have a happily-ever-after life. They’re old, they have a deep personal tragedy in their lives, split up, and kept going. Solo “Went back to the only thing he was ever any good at,” and Lea finally has a job. (Seriously: Why was she not running the rebellion in Return of the Jedi? She’s pretty much added baggage in that film, contributing nothing of any real note). While I’d rather have had Luke go evil (Which was something the Orige-Trige hinted at), him just having the heart beat out of him, abandoning everything, and leaving was a nice way to go. The new bad guy had a much more personal connection to The Big Three and his defection devestated all of them.

When the Black Suited Bad Guy is called by his real name – “Ben” – it’s a surprisingly “Oooh!” moment on several levels.

The Supreme Leader is an interesting new big bad. More questions than answers, but he’s already more interesting than the Emperor ever was. Less imposing, more interesting. Much the same as the new Black Suited Bad Guy, actually.

The new male lead, “Finn,” is actually a pretty fantastic character, too: he’s got a tragic backstory, being taken from his family and raised as a killing machine. He’s a coward, however, and deserts. He’s pretty much a coward through the first half of the film, just playing along to get away, but he’s continually forced – against his will – to man up. Finally, in the end, he is actually a hero…and immediately gets curbstomped. He’s charismatic, likeable, fairly smart, quick to adapt, a little desparate, and very unsure of himself. I liked the hell out of him. Also, the actor – British – does a great American accent.

“Ray,” the new female protagonist fills the “Plucky Girl” role nicely. Her backstory is considerably more ambiguous, but I presume she’s Luke’s long-lost daughter, given how quickly she develops her powers, and “Ben’s” quick and surprising concern when he learns there’s this mysterious girl running around. If so, a face-off between her and her cousin in the subsequent movies is a good storytelling choice. Her trippy flashback/flash forward scene when she first touches the lightsaber are very cool.

The battle where she’s captured is wonderfully higgaldy-piggaldy, well shot, and probably the best battle sequence in the entire franchise.

There were endless scenes of spacecraft flying low and fast over the water, and I ain’t complaining. All that was cool.

I liked the big stormtrooper “Seig Heil” scene.

The last scene, while perhaps as not as poignient as it they thought it was, was still pretty good.

Blowing up Coruscant? Pretty damn cool. “Take that, prequels!”

And of course, best of all: This is the first Star Wars film to have the correct number at the beginning.

On the other hand, there’s a good dal of stuff I didn’t like, or which didn’t make any sense.

First and foremost: I don’t like this “First Order” stuff. I get that there were still factions loyal to the Empire, and I get that some of them would obviously attempt to sieze power, but think about it: it’s been 32 years since the emperor died. That’s more time than the Empire itself even existed. It’s more likely the remaining forces would have simply gone pirate, or struck a deal by this point. What bugs me, though, is that of the various foes one could have chosen, this is about the least interesting one. In essence we’ve got the same exact conflict as in the Orige Trige: Imperials versus Rebels. Yawn.

Why did they do this? Because what Lucas never seems to have understood is that what fans want more than anything else is X-wings versus TIE fighters. And this is the excuse: Yawn.

And what’s the deal with the resistance? The Resistance is fighting the First Order, and they’re supported by The Republic, but evidently they’re not part of the Republic Military? What’s that all about? And why are they so ramshackle? Why wouldn’t the Republic’s own armed forces (Perhaps led by General Organia) be leading the conflict? That made no sense.

Normally I don’t say “How I’d have done it” in my reviews, but it struck me that a much cleaner, less convoluted narrative way to do it would be to have Lea in charge of the groups that root out loyalists like the First Order, and fight/contain/destroy them. She leads a group to attack the new death star (Excuse me: Starkiller) and then Coruscant gets destroyd and – “Oh my God, the government’s gone, the New Republic is destroyed, and we’re the only ones left!” – which would ratchet the tension up nicely. It goes from being just another mission to, “Oh crap!” very quickly.

The destruction of Coruscant probably should have gotten more chatter than it did. We don’t even get anyone freaking out. “Oh my God, the government and economy of the galaxy have just collapsed” or “Coruscant has been the capital of the galaxy since before humans even existed!” That kind of thing. Think about how freaked out we were when 9/11 happened. Now think how freaked out we’d be if it had been DC getting nuked instead. We should get some feel of that here.

Despite being the co-lead of the film and heir apparent to Luke, Ray doesn’t make much of an impression. She’s a serviceable lead, but she’s more defined by what she does than who she is. Likewise, “Bo,” the hotshot fighter pilot doesn’t make much of an impression. As these guys are apparently the central trio for this trilogy, I found that a little disappointing. Or maybe it’s just because they can’t keep up with Han and the much-better Finn hogging the spotlight.

How is it that “First Order” technology seems to have progressed – at least some – in the intervening generation, but the good guys are still using crap from the Rebellion? I mean, that stuff was supposed to be old already, back then. I know, I know, I know: Because we want to see X-wings versus TIE fighters, but a one-line explanation would have been nice.

Why wasn’t Lando in this film? We get every surviving character from the first film, plus Admiral Ackbar and Lando’s copilot from Jedi, so why not him? My prediction is that he’ll turn up in the second film because he turned up in the second film of the Orige-Trige as well. And is Wedge here? Probably he’s in one of the Rebel Base scenes, and I just didn’t notice him.

It was a sin to put Max Von Sydow in this movie, and then kill him off after three minutes of screen time. Seriously: What’s that all about?

Death Star 3 – “Starkiller” – seems to have a serious design flaw in that it eats a star to shoot. Since it’s a planet and not a space ship or space station, it can’t move to a new star. So they spent twenty years building a weapon that only has one or two shots, and then is useless?

Soooooo…Luke is Yoda now? That seems to be what they were setting it up as for the next film.

I was disappointed by the music as well. The original Star Wars music is honestly one of the high points of post-WW2 American cinema. It is just a fracking awesome score. Three awesome scores, really, all in the leitmotiff style, with lots of character and action themes, all overlapping and interplaying off of each other nicely. The Prequels weren’t as good. There was a deliberate choice to make the music less “bright” than in the orige-trige. As they’re all about the corruption of Anikin and the fall of civilization, that makes sense, and probably would have workd better if the movies hadn’t been seven-and-a-half hours of suckitude. However at least they had the “Duel of the Fates” theme, and that was pretty awesome.

In this film, it’s just not terribly inspired. We get the main theme, of course, and a slightly different arrangement of it over the closing credits, but apart from a few bars of the Imperial Death March, we don’t get any of the old stuff. No Lea’s theme, no Lea-and-Han theme, no Luke’s theme, not even some kind of ‘Duel of the Fates’ variation (Which would have been appropriate in a couple scenes). Instead the new film features…nothing. There’s no noteworthy personal themes, no cool imposing First Order theme to rival the “Dah-dah-dah” of the Empire. While it is still in the leitmotiff style, we have a bunch of non-entity musical pieces bouncing off of each other, and it doesn’t really do anything. We barely notice it.

Look, I know the current theory is that movie music isn’t supposed to draw attention to itself, but, pardon my French: Fuck that noise. This isn’t a cinematic adaptation of Barteleby The Scrivener here. This isn’t “Marie Curie Dies Of Cancer In The Name Of Science.” This isn’t freakin’ “Paris, Texas” where you can get away with Ry Cooder just noodling away on his guitar without accompanyment for two hours. This is Star Wars, dammit! The entire thing exists to be over-the-top and bombastic and awe-inspiring! This isn’t a tortured psychodrama, this is Flash Gordon! This is Buck Rogers! I’ll say it again: This is Star Wars! Go big, Mr. Williams, or just don’t bother coming out of retirement to do the next one.

That probably sounds disrespectful. It’s not really intended that way. He’s victim to the strictures of the times, and he’s also like 106 years old, so, you know, he might just have run out of music before he ran out of life, but this has always been one of the things I’ve looked forward to, and this is the first time he’s really disappointed me.

Finally we come to my biggest beef: This is not a very clean narrative. In storytelling terms it’s a bit of a jumble. Let me explain that:

In Star Wars, we start in the middle of the action, then spent a half hour following the droids around before we meet hero, we don’t get off the planet until the one hour mark, the third half hour is all about escaping from the death star, and the final half hour is the battle to destroy it. Very clean, very straightforward.

In Empire, we start off in the middle of the action, and Luke gets separated. He meets Yoda and trains, while Han and company do a very bad job of fleeing. They meet up at the end, and the good guys lose. It’s a more ambitious narrative, but it’s still a very clean one: together at the start, separate, contrasting adventures in the middle, meet up at the end. We meet a couple new friends along the way, expanding the cast, Han becomes a hero in his own right, and (Most impressively) structurally it’s basically a movie in reverse. Best of the bunch.

Then you get Jedi: it’s kind of a mess. We get 30 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, followed by an unrelated, uninspired 90-minute remake of the first film where the movie ping-pongs between trivial, time-wasting shenanegins on Endor, and Luke’s audience with the Emperor. (The latter being the only part of the film that really works.) We have a big naval battle at the end which is pretty cool. The we’ve got the clumsily-shoehorned “Let’s kill Yoda for no damn reason” and “Luke and Lea are siblings, no, seriously, no foolin’!” thing, all because Lucas didn’t have another single damn idea in his head, and was exhausted, and just wanted done with the whole series.

The prequels were just a huge jumble. I won’t even attempt to boil any of them down. I’ll just say that there’s lot of running around back and forth for no real good reason, and none of it makes any sense.

This movie, sadly, follows the tradition of having a lot of running around to no great purpose. Desert planet to lush planet to Rebel Base Planet (Which looks mostly the same as Lush planet) to Death Star Planet, to Luke’s Planet Scotland, with some other crap on the side. We don’t need a travelog. We need a more focused story. Again: I seldom suggest changes, but why is there even a rebel base planet? Why isn’t Lea based out of Coruscant? That certainly would have more impact when it’s destroyed later on.

It’s also a little unclear who the hero is. The Orige-Trige is Luke’s story. All the other characters support him. I’m not really sure who the main character of the prequels is (Which is one of its many, many failings). In this one, I’m not sure. Is it Ray? Is it Fin? Is it Han?

I was ten when I saw Star Wars with my dad for the first time. Both of us were blown away. We went to Steak and Shake for lunch afterwards and talked endlessly about the film, and that conversation was the first time I ever heard the word “Sequel.” It was a great memory.

So now I’m 48 and I saw this one with my kid. We went to Steak and Shake for lunch afterwards, and, well, we really didn’t have much to talk about.

The End

MOVIE REVIEW: “Enemy Mine” (1985)

I saw this movie with my friend Scott Mead at a $1.50 triple feature about a year after it came out. (Really!) I’ve probably picked it up once or twice on cable since then, but not in more than 25 years. I thought it was really bland and boring, though it had one or two scenes that did jump out at me. On a lark, I decided to give it a shot, and lo and behold, I actualy kind of like it now.

PLAY-BY-PLAY

In the 2080s humanity is at war with an alien species called the ‘Drac.’ Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid) is a hotshot fighter pilot who gets shot down on an uninhabited, hostile world. Quickly he meets up with Jeriba, a hotshot Drac fighter pilot who’s also shot down. Initially at each other’s throats, they quickly realize that their only chance to survive is to work together, and over the course of a year or two on the planet the two become friends (Though neither really wants to admit it). Davidge learns to speak Drac, “Jerry,” learns to speak English. Their adventures are not particularly adventurous.

Eventually Davidge discovers human scavengers are mining a location a few days walk away, and are using Drac as slave labor. Though he could likely sign on with them and escape, Davidge chooses to protect his friend. He heads back to their camp and tells him he found nothing. Jerry, meanwhile, has become spontaneously pregnant (later. We’ll talk about it later. Wait for the observations!). Something goes wrong, and Jerry dies in childbirth, leaving Davidge to raise the baby.

Drac grow fast, so Zamis – the child – goes from baby to something about the level of an eight year old in about a year or so. Learning that there are scavengers on the planet, and wanting to see others of his own kind, Zamis heads off, and is promptly captured and enslaved. Davidge tries to rescue him, is shot and left for dead.

Davidge is discovered and rescued by his own ship. As soon as he’s patched up, he steals a fighter, flies back to the planet, rescues Zamis, and then we flash forward several years to when Davidge fulfils a promise to Jerry by helping the kid be Bar Mitzvahed.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

Despite its lordly $30 budget – which was huge by the standards of the day (Wrath of Khan cost $10 million, Empire Strikes Back cost $20 million) – this is a cheap looking movie. The sets are expansive, but bland and flimsy. The costumes are meh. The special effects would be pretty dowdy in a movie made in 1970. The Maurice Jarre soundtrack is…a soundtrack. With the exception of the football scene, it’s pretty uninspired. Most of this, I think, is due to it being a German production with an American cast. It’s a comparatively small country, and there just wasn’t much of a talent pool to make this glitzy and slick. It’s not that they’re incapable, it’s just that there’s probably more movie industry folks living and working in the city of Miami than there are in all Germany. That shows here.

The story is kind of timeless, and had this film been made in 1985 or 1965, it wouldn’t really have been any different, apart from the alien makeup not being as good. It’s a fairly low-key story. There’s only one dogfight, which is incompetently filmed (Seriously: They did it better on Battlestar Galactica seven years earlier for an insignificant fraction of the budget!), and that’s at the beginning. The rest of the film is essentially a character drama, and then there’s a mediocre fight sequence/set piece at the end. Basically, it’s not an actioner. It’s actually kind of a sweet little film, and that’s just not what audiences then – or now – are really looking for.

Still, you know what? It’s actually a pretty good movie. No, not ‘good.’ It’s ‘Nice.’

Quaid is a mediocre actor most of the time, and he’s mediocre here up until he gets shot down. From then on he gives a surprisingly solid performance as a basically decent guy who hates the alien he’s working with until his basic decency finally erodes his anger and racial prejudice. This is not an allegory for racism, by the way: his character has every reason to hate the Drac and the Drac have very valid reasons to hate humans. The fact that Davidge is, perhaps, not exceptionally smart is a nice touch, too, and prettyboy Quaid commits to the role, progressively getting more raggedy and bearded and longhaired and hermit-like as the story goes on. I also find it strangely engaging when he occasionally lapses in to his native Texan accent now and again.

His scenes of continued annoyance that Jerry is learning English faster than he’s learning Drac are pretty funny, as is his low-key condescension (“Hey, how about we open up a restaurant? I could ruin the food and you could scare the customers”). His fear of Jerry getting killed by the Scavengers is reserved, but obvious. His panic about Jerry possibly dying is appropriately fearful (“I’ll be alone here!”) The sequence where Jerry dies is genuinely moving. The scenes of him playing with the young Zamis are great – particularly the football scene – and the one where he has to explain to the kid why he looks nothing like him is similarly good. The bit where he’s learning to read the Drac bible (it’s the only book on the planet, and he’s bored) raised the hair on the back of my neck.

He reads a passage out loud, which sounds pretty much like something Jesus would say.

“I’ve heard this before, in the human scripture.”
“Of course. Truth is truth.”

Louis Gossett, Jr, really is a pretty great actor even if he has no clue how to choose a commercial film. Burried in about 20 pounds of latex, he is completely awesome as Jerry. He gets a lot of emotion out of a not-very-expressive face, and his twitch, reptilian manerisms are well done. Though we grow to accept him over the course of the film, he’s suitably creepy in the early scenes. He’s more laid back, and definitely smarter than Davidge. It’s unclear why he doesn’t kill the human when he has the chance early on, but I suspect it’s because he wants to use him as a slave. (Davidge is forced to do all the grunt work in the first act of the movie) His weird alien laughter is funny, as is him learning English profanities-first. His spasmodic not-at-all-human crying (No tears, convulsng head, weird body language) when he’s abandoned is not only believably alien, it’s also genuinely moving.

To quote Dr. Kyle, “As aliens go, this one is pretty alien.” The Drac are hermaphrodites. They are reptiles. They reproduce by parthenogenesis, and have no control over when it happens. They’ve got a seemingly-vestigial tail. They’ve got no nose, and twitchy little organs of some kind by the mouth. They tend to not move at all until something happens and then their reactions are too fast. Their language is guttural and involves lots of croaking and clicks. They only have three fingers, and it looks like six teeth. No nose. Tympanums for ears. They’re very well realized for a movie of this era.

One thing I really liked is the steadfast devotion to the nonsense alien language. The two characters can not understand each other at all at the start of the film. Now, in most movies we’d find a translator machine, or the alien would just coincidentally speak English for some reason. In this movie, however, we’re in the second act before they can really converse. It sounds tedious, and it might actually be (in 1986 I certainly thought it was) but this time out I liked it.

There is no mention in the film of what happened with the Drac war. Is it over? Is it going on? How did it end? Who won? Oddly, though the movie is (infrequently) narrated by Quaid, they abruptly switch to another narrator for the last 90 seconds.

NOTES

This movie had a troubled production. About 45 minutes was filmed before the original director was fired, and they started over again with Wolfgang Petersen. None of that footage is in the film. In fact no one – not even Dennis Quaid – has ever seen it. You won’t see it here, either: The extras on this disc are limited to three – count ’em three – behind the scenes stills.

Once the film was done, the studio realized they had a bomb on their hands, and chopped about 22 minutes in order to cut their losses. (Shorter films = more showings per day = more money) This, too, has never been seen by anyone since Petersen turned in his director’s cut. Again, I’d love to see it; again I never will.

In the original novella by Barry Longyear (Which I’ve never read) I’m told that while Davidge was on the planet the war ended. He went back to earth and got a job translating old westerns into Drac. Then something happens with Zamis, and he’s off to rescue the kid. Now, obviously this movie never had anything like that in it, however something on that order could fit nicely in between the time Davvidge is rescued, and the time he goes AWOL.

In the film he’s rescued by his ship and leaves his ship two or three scenes later. I’m assuming that most of the stuff that got cut was from the ship, as his exit seems very abrupt. Add to this that the ship sets are pretty huge and get about five minutes of screen time. Clearly something substantial was chopped here, and explained away with a very forced voiceover. I think there was some denouement chopped from the point between when Zamis is rescued, and the Alien Bar Mitzvah scene, given that the time is glossed over by narration, and it’s a different narrator than they used in the rest of the film. Clearly something forced in post, when Quaid was no longer readily at hand.

This is not a great film, but it’s an unexpected success just the same. If you get a chance to watch it, do.